Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction:

Your Fiction’s Hardworking First Paragraph

Part III: In the Mood

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

April 2007

"A good fiction’s first paragraph will tell me if I want to read on."

In my first column this year, I showed how your fiction’s hardworking first paragraph sets the pace, and in my second, we looked at how the seeds of everything that comes after are planted in not merely your first paragraph, but your first sentence. This month, we’ll look at your hardworking first paragraph’s third duty: creating the mood.

Fitting Fiction to Your Mood

When I’m browsing in a bookstore, I avoid those back-cover blurbs for the overblown fluff they are. Instead, I open the book and read its first paragraph, which gives me a feel for the author’s style, what the book will be about, and, most important to me at that particular moment, the mood of the fiction. While I always prefer well-written, thought-provoking writing, sometimes I want something dense and difficult, and other times I’m after something funny and light.

A good fiction’s first paragraph will tell me if I want to read on. But rather than my explaining how this works, let’s go to my bookshelf and look at a few titles that I recently purchased – and loved – to see how their authors set their moods from paragraph one.

"What’s going to be the mood of this novel? If you said “darkly comic,” you’re absolutely right."

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

If you’ve not yet discovered the brilliant British writer Kate Atkinson, stop reading this and get thee to a bookstore. Atkinson is becoming better known is this country thanks to her 2005 novel Case Histories and the more-recently published One Good Turn, but her 1995 debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, should be a must-read for any writer – or aspiring writer. Here’s the beginning of its opening paragraph:

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling…

What’s going to be the mood of this novel? If you said “darkly comic,” you’re absolutely right. But it’s also exuberant, meandering (as befits its youthful – or, in this case, not yet born – narrator), and slyly allusive to other novels. Plus, the writing is singularly marvelous.

"Doctorow’s breathless prose creates a mood of (in words he himself uses in this sentence) “anguish” and “doom,”. . . "

The March

Longtime novelist E. L. Doctorow has never been one to rest on his laurels, and his most recent offering once again uses a small moment in history as a springboard for contemplating more contemporary issues. The March takes the reader along as General Sherman marches from Atlanta northward in the last year of the U. S. Civil War. Here’s its 168-word first sentence:

At five in the morning someone banging on the door and shouting, her husband, John, leaping out of bed, grabbing his rifle, and Roscoe at the same time roused from the backhouse, his bare feet pounding: Mattie hurriedly pulled on her robe, her mind prepared for the alarm of war, but the heart stricken that it would finally have come, and down the stairs she flew to see through the open door in the lamplight, at the steps of the portico, the two horses, steam rising from their flanks, their heads, lifting, their eyes wild, the driver a young darkie with rounded shoulders, showing stolid patience even in this, and the woman standing in her carriage no one but her aunt Letitia Pettibone of McDounough, her elderly face drawn in anguish, her hair a straggled mess, this woman of such fine grooming, this dowager who practically ruled the season in Atlanta standing up in the equipage like some hag of doom, which indeed she would prove to be.

Whew! And the paragraph’s only half over. Doctorow’s breathless prose creates a mood of (in words he himself uses in this sentence) “anguish” and “doom,” with hurry and fear tossed in for good measure. Once again, if you must stop reading this to run and buy this novel, I understand.

"Némirovsky here sets up a mood of anticipation, of a war still “far away”. . ."

Suite Française

Iréne Némirovsky completed only the first volume of this planned trilogy before she herself was killed in a concentration camp during World War II, and while this masterpiece was written in French, her translator, Sandra Smith, has nonetheless conveyed its mood beautifully in this beginning to its opening paragraph:

Hot, thought the Parisians. The warm air of spring. It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep – the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved. To them it began as a long breath, like air being forced into a deep sigh. It wasn’t long before its wailing filled the sky. It came from afar, from beyond the horizon, slowly, almost lazily…

Némirovsky here sets up a mood of anticipation, of a war still “far away” but moving closer, as “a long breath.” Note, too, the unusual point of view (omniscient third person plural) and how this groupthink contributes to the mood. The weather itself helps create the mood as well, and in fact it seems that it is because it is hot that the sound of the siren seems to “come from…beyond the horizon…almost lazily.” Contrast this approaching war to that Doctorow conjures above, and you will see just how much word choice and sentence length (to name but two of the many contributing factors) affect a fiction’s mood.

"Every novel is a brand new journey."

What’s Your Mood?

You may already have started reconsidering your own first paragraph(s) based on this, and my previous two columns. If so, I’m delighted. But I’ll tell you further that as a result of writing this, I’ve spent the past two mornings rewriting one of my own novel’s beginnings as well. Which brings us, finally, to the most important lesson of fiction writing: Every novel is a brand new journey. Enjoy the ride!

Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.